In the summer of 1982 the Spot Tavern in Renton, WA was a popular watering hole. After a softball game it was a local’s place for beer, pizza, pool and yes, arcade video games. On the back wall was one of my favorite new games, Donkey Kong.
I loved it’s quirky game play and 8-bit audio as “Jumpman” (later to be named Mario), jumped and maneuvered his way. It’s action and humor riveted me like no other game. Unlike my other favorites of the time – Asteroids and Battlezone, Donkey Kong featured characters and a make-shift story of boy saves girl. When playing, I was focused like a laser. My heart raced when danger lurked or time was about to expire.
“How Do You Know To Do That?”
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man with a mustache watching me play. Unlike others in the tavern he was impeccably dressed with a starched white shirt and tie. “Hey, you’re pretty good” he said. “Why do you like the game? And how do you know to do that?” he asked. “Well, if I turn this way, I fake out the game and make the barrel come down this ladder,” I replied.
After a few more questions he handed me his card. “Give me a call. I’d like to hear more about how you learn the game.” His card read “Ron Judy, Vice President of Marketing, Nintendo of America.”
From that day I played each game of Donkey Kong with more sense of purpose. And I began to pay more attention to other player’s turns too. Huddled around large wooden game cabinets, players shared their thoughts about games and how to beat them. Arcade games really were the original “social games.”
Staying in Contact
My conversations with Ron were centered around how players learn games and my personal Donkey Kong strategies. This was Nintendo’s first big hit and they wanted to understand it’s magic. I presume he appreciated my insights, so our biweekly conversations continued.
Ron suggested I go to “Goldie’s” and play a new test game called Donkey Kong Junior. This soon became my hangout. I made several trips from Bellevue to Seattle’s Wallingford district and the popular University of Washington Sports Bar. Goldie’s had rows and rows of the newest arcade games and 1/4 lb burgers w/fries for $1.25. For the local games distributor Music Vend, it served as a barometer for which games players wanted to spend money on.
Unlike today’s games with “hold your hand” tutorials, classic games had learning curves that were essential to the game design. Learning a game, or “figuring it out” was part of the fun. It’s a way to understand how time and practice leads towards proficiency. Learning curves were labeled either “low” or “steep.” A player’s first few quarters were generally feeble attempts while first learning the game’s controls, mechanics and timing patterns.
Donkey Kong Junior had a steeper learning curve, and for other reasons wasn’t as popular as it’s predecessor. For me, I needed to quickly master it and understand every nuance of the game. And so I did.
Back then, games were shorter in overall length. The stages repeated themselves, but the action moved faster and faster. “Ramping” the game difficulty was a technique to maximize income, control play time and extend a games earnings “life”.
One day Ron told me the company president would be visiting Goldie’s that evening. I arrived early and camped on the game until a man in a suit introduced himself. Soft-spoken and with a wide smile he said, “My name is Minoru Arakawa, President of Nintendo.”
He wanted to watch me play, so I went about my business. “You’re really good” he said. “Please come to our factory tomorrow and show the company how you play the game.” Needless to say, I was excited as could be for my meeting the next day.
I arrived early for my 2:00 pm appointment. In 1982, Nintendo of America then occupied a warehouse in Tukwila, not too far from the Southcenter Shopping Mall. It was leased from a man with the name, Mario Segale.
I was escorted to the warehouse where a Donkey Kong Junior game was waiting for me. Mr. Arakawa watched and smiled, where on a gaming stool I zipped through level after level. I described key points of play along the way. Before long the whole company was out there watching me. Back then there wasn’t more than fifteen employees, including manufacturing temps.
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